Natalie Coughlin: Professional swimmer, amateur gorilla-watcher

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Fresh off her history-making performance in London that saw her tie Dara Torres’ and Jenny Thompson’s all-time Olympic medals total of 12 (the most for a U.S. female), Natalie Coughlin wants to keep swimming at age 30.

We caught up with Coughlin and talked about working out, her recent trip to Africa – where she proudly wore her Oakland Raiders hat in the jungle – and a whole lot more. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation:

How much swimming and training are you doing?
I’ve been lifting, running and swimming. I haven’t formally started training with the team yet, but I have been working out on my own. I’m swimming five days a week … not over 5,000 [meters a day].

When will you start competing again?
I have no idea. I’m still trying to figure out my meet schedule. But I’ll definitely be at Santa Clara [Grand Prix in early June] and World Championships Trials [in late June].

You do a lot of running. Ever think of going the Brendan Hansen route and doing triathlons?
The whole cycling thing freaks me out. Being on the road with cars … when I’m in my own car I don’t trust other drivers. If there were run-swims, I would do those.
Editor’s note: Natalie, try an aquathlon.

Did it really take you 45 hours to travel to Rwanda for your recent trip with Right to Play?
We ended up having mechanical issues in Chicago that ruined the rest of our flight. We flew from San Francisco to Chicago, then Chicago to Brussels. And originally we were supposed to fly from Brussels to Kigali [Rwanda] but because we missed that connection, and that connection only happens twice a week, we couldn’t get a flight. So we ended up having this 10-hour layover in Brussels, and then we flew Brussels to Paris, Paris to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then Entebbe, Uganda to Rwanda.

We missed the first day of only a five-day trip. The day we landed, two hours later we had a press conference. Whenever I wasn’t speaking I was dozing off in front of all these reporters. I was at the point of absolute exhaustion.

Tell us about the gorillas you saw in Rwanda.
I will admit, there were times when I accepted that I might get completely mauled by gorillas. [laughs] A toddler gorilla kicked me and ran off. The alpha silverback came to me and brushed up against me. I was trying to look at the ground, look anywhere but in his eyes.

What else stood out during the trip?
I had my big camera and I’m taking all these photos of the kids. Everywhere we went, they were so excited to see us. They were signing and dancing and including us in all the Right to Play games. The kids … would ask me to take pictures of them so they could see their photos. It was because they don’t have mirrors; they don’t know what they look like.

If you retired tomorrow, would you be satisfied?
I don’t think I can ever be satisfied with my career, but I’m extremely proud of it. I’m proud of what I’ve done. But half the reason that I’m continuing is that I still have goals for myself. That being said, if this all gets taken away from me somehow I will continually be proud of it and I’ll be OK with moving on. I love doing this, so why not?

Right to Play is an international organization dedicated to using sport and play to empower children and youth to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict, and disease in disadvantaged communities. Read more at righttoplay.com.

Gus Kenworthy qualifies for Olympic ski slopestyle team

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Two nights after taking a massive slam in the halfpipe, Gus Kenworthy bounced back to earn a spot on his second U.S. Olympic slopestyle team.

Kenworthy placed second at the final Olympic qualifier for freeski slopestyle, which was held Sunday at Mammoth Mountain. That result, combined with a victory at a selection event last weekend, qualified him for the Olympic team.

It wasn’t the smoothest week for Kenworthy, who had been trying to make the U.S. team in both halfpipe and slopestyle.

During Friday night’s final qualifier for the ski halfpipe team, Kenworthy struggled to land a run and then had a hard crash on his final attempt.

On Saturday, he placed 58th out of 63 skiers in the preliminary round of a slopestyle selection event.

It was a different story on Sunday though.

By making the slopestyle team, Kenworthy will have another shot at an Olympic medal. He won a silver medal at the last Winter Olympics in Sochi, where slopestyle made its debut, and was part of a podium sweep alongside Joss Christensen and Nick Goepper.

Earlier in the day, Goepper became the first skier to make the men’s slopestyle Olympic team. Because of weather delays throughout the week, Mammoth ended up hosting a pair of Olympic qualifiers on Sunday.

Goepper and Kenworthy were the only skiers to earn automatic nominations onto the men’s slopestyle Olympic team during the qualifying period. Two more skiers can still be added to the team as discretionary selections.

McRae Williams, the 2017 X Games silver medalist, has a strong case for one of those two spots. He finished sixth and fifth at Sunday’s two slopestyle qualifiers.

The other spot on the team looks a little more uncertain. Among the riders likely in consideration is Alex Hall, who was fourth at the final qualifier and is the next ranked skier in terms of qualifying points. It’s also possible that reigning Olympic gold medalist Joss Christensen, who just returned to competition last week after rehabbing from a torn ACL, could be in the discussion.

While Kenworthy is now assured a spot on the slopestyle team, he’s likely on the outside looking in for halfpipe. The three automatic spots have already been allocated to David Wise, Alex Ferreira and Torin Yater-Wallace, and the discretionary spot appears likely to go to Aaron Blunck.

Discretionary picks for both slopestyle and halfpipe are expected to be announced in the next few days.

U.S. Olympic Qualifying Standings

Men’s Freeski Slopestyle
After 5 of 5 Events:

1. Gus Kenworthy, 180** (QUALIFIED)
2. Nick Goepper, 160** (QUALIFIED)
3. McRae Williams, 95
4. Alex Hall, 95
5. Quinn Wolferman, 79
6. Bobby Brown, 68
7. Noah Wallace, 60
8. Joss Christensen, 60

**Has met qualifying minimum of two top-three finishes.

Nick Goepper becomes first skier to qualify for U.S. Olympic men’s slopestyle team

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The U.S. men’s freeski slopestyle team has its first member for PyeongChang.

Nick Goepper qualified for his second Olympic team on Sunday as the U.S. selection events start to draw to a close.

Goepper, who grew up learning to ski in Indiana, was on the podium earlier this year at two of the first three selection events for the ski slopestyle team, which enabled him to meet objective criteria for Olympic qualifying. Though he finished just eighth in the first of two Olympic qualifiers being held Sunday at Mammoth Mountain, he was able to secure his spot on the team because no other Americans finished on the podium.

At the last Olympics, where slopestyle made its debut, Goepper won a bronze medal. He was part of a historic medal sweep and was joined on the podium by Joss Christensen and Gus Kenworthy.

Those two are still looking to qualify.

Christensen just returned to competition last week after rehabbing from a torn ACL. After not making the final at either slopestyle qualifier last week, he finished seventh at Mammoth and could be in contention for a discretionary spot.

As for Kenworthy, he took a hard slam in Friday night’s halfpipe final and then did not advance out of Saturday’s preliminary round for slopestyle. He is slated to compete in another slopestyle qualifier, which will be held later today. Kenworthy can still clinch his spot on the Olympic team with a top-three finish in that one.

Another contender for the team is McRae Williams, who was the top U.S. skier at Mammoth with a sixth-place finish. Williams won a silver medal at X Games last year.

While the bronze medal and the U.S. podium sweep put Goepper in the spotlight in Sochi, he is hungry for more.

“To be completely honest, I was a bit frustrated with my result at first,” Goepper told NBC Olympics last year. “I really wanted to win that day, and I went there with all the confidence in the world and the expectation to be on the top. I definitely feel like I’ve got some unfinished business at the Winter Olympics.”

Olympic qualifying for the ski slopestyle team concludes with a second contest later today.

Kenworthy is the only one who could officially secure a nomination in that event, but all other skiers will still be looking to earn discretionary spots on the team, which are expected to be allocated next week.

Up to four men and four women can ultimately be named to the U.S. Olympic slopestyle team.

U.S. Qualifying Standings

Men’s Freeski Slopestyle
After 4 of 5 Events:
1. Nick Goepper, 160** (QUALIFIED)
2. Gus Kenworthy, 140*
3. McRae Williams, 90
4. Quinn Wolferman, 79
5. Alex Hall, 57
6. Bobby Brown, 56
7. Joss Christensen, 54
8. Willie Borm, 50

Women’s Freeski Slopestyle
After 5 of 5 Events:
1. Maggie Voisin, 180** (QUALIFIED)
2. Caroline Claire, 92*
3. Devin Logan, 90
4. Darian Stevens, 85
5. Taylor Lundquist, 81
6. Julia Krass, 72

**Has met qualifying minimum of two top-three finishes.
*Has one top-three finish.